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The Secret behind the Allure of A. R. RAHMAN

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October 2007
The Secret behind the Allure of A. R. RAHMAN

An exclusive interview with A. R. Rahman reveals a marriage of talent with technology as one of the many factors responsible for his rise to the top—at a young age and with lightning speed.

A little over a decade ago, virtually no one had heard of A. R. Rahman. Today, he sits at the top of the pack of Indian music composers, some of whom have been around for many years. "It is all divine grace," says the soft spoken artist with his characteristically genuine humility. His demeanor belies not only the spectacular height of his ascent, but also the breadth of his musical signature. The man who rallied the nation with patriotic fervor with a single number, Vande Mataram, is also the one who has composed, in collaboration with a Finnish band, for the musical version of The Lord of the Rings.

From composing music for South Indian films to Bollywood to international theatrical shows, Rahman continues to broaden his horizons, challenge the status quo, rile up the purists, and top the charts with massive musical hits such as Roja, Bombay, Dil Se, Taal, and recent ones such as Rang De Basanti and Guru.

Rahman is what happens when the legendary Indian classical music lineage meets the nerve center of modern music: the ubiquitous synthesizer, commonly known as the keyboard. Scoffed by the purists, the versatile keyboard has nevertheless transformed contemporary music, and there is hardly a more telling example of this than Rahman. His characteristic fusion music, while edgy and experimental, is firmly grounded in rigorous classical training.

His music, like his persona and his background, is steeped in and inspired by faith. Born A. S. Dileep Kumar (on January 1967 in Chennai), he became Allah Rakha Rahman due to many influences — starting from the despair and anguish of losing his father at age nine, to having dreams of an old man pushing him to embrace Islam, to finally an incident where his gravely ill sister seemed to have been miraculously cured by a visiting Sufi saint.

A few minutes with Rahman reveals a deeply spiritual person devoid of any pronounced religiosity. Try to give him credit — whether for his meteoric rise as a musician or for launching careers of the likes of Sukhwinder — and he instinctively deflects it to a higher power.

A small but revealing example of his natural humility was when I appeared backstage in the Green Room after his concert at the Gwinnett Arena to do this interview for Khabar. Thronged by close friends and family of the promoters, as well as other ardent fans who managed to make it backstage, the room was a cacophony of squeals and clamor of Rahman worshipers. Even when we sat down at one corner to conduct the interview, the decibels of the guests had far from subsided. When it became evident that the interview would not be possible under those circumstances, any other "star" would have naturally asked the promoters to have the room vacated; instead, Rahman stood up and volunteered to move to another room instead of appearing rude to his fans. Mark Premji, the local promoter, soon handled the situation by requesting the fans to step out.

And so the tape rolled?

The breadth of your musical signature is astounding—from South Indian films to massive Bollywood hits to Bombay Dreams to Lord of the Rings, and now even Hollywood films. How is one person able to attain such wildly divergent genres and come up successful in it all?

It is terrifying sometimes! I think that if you are open-hearted and if you embrace everything and appreciate everything, then it's good. You can do a little bit over a course of time, and once you gain confidence, you can do it. The new thing that I got into which was completely different was The Lord of the Rings theatrical play music score. It was something that I had never done before, and I am glad that it took off so well.

But how are you able to cross that bridge? Very seldom is Hollywood coming to India looking for talent.

Well, the bridge is also about India becoming an economic superpower. So we are gaining a lot of respect. Initially I didn't see that respect. But now people come and say, ‘Oh you guys are IT engineers, and you are coming up with great music and producing more movies than us on an annual basis.' So the respect now is greater coming from outside, and that is a big change.

I remember a conversation with Ashaji (Bhonsle) about the changing face of music recording. She had recalled, "When I walked in the studio, it was just Rahmanji, me, and only one instrument (the synthesizer)." How is it that you were able to convince veterans such as Ashaji, who were used to large orchestras with 50 cellos and grand recording venues such as Mehboob Studios to your Spartan but effective ways?

That time was fun. I didn't care for anything. I just cared for my music. Not in an arrogant way, but in my way. This is what I know, and I had to do [it], to do it best, but at the same time I tried to carve whatever I desired. There was no inhibition, so when I give the musician something wild to play and say that these are the notes, they are actually able to abstract something super from the base score. Actually it has helped me a great deal. From childhood my interest was in electronics, so this was a good culmination.

In my books you are a marketing genius as well?

I am a marketing genius too? (Smiles with disbelief)

Yes. If you look at Taal, you created a song which is raga-based and then you remixed your own song with a fast paced hip-hop beat at a time when remixing was an industry by itself. So you not only preempted the possibility of others remixing it, but also came up with two very distinct "Taal se taal milao." Please tell us how or why you came up with such a novel idea.

Well, the script needed that! When we sat for the music, Subhashji [Ghai] would come around at the studio and keep fiddling with presentations. He has so much input that you cannot help but give your best. Some of the music was done for a previous movie called Shikhar, which was never released. He is so passionate that we did the whole story around music. He is very open and very childlike, so when he comes in the studio he looks around and says, ‘Hey, what is this?' and ‘What is that?' He bosses around sometimes as well, but on the whole when he finds something exciting, he desires to work together.

Someone of your caliber has access to the best singing talent there is in the industry. Yet, you seem comfortable taking risks with unknowns.

For me the output is very important. I am not interested in the process. Well, there is this Rajasthani guy who is the son of the folk singer, who performed in "Jana Gana Man" (Vande Matram). He suddenly brought his son to me and suggested that he sing, and I said, ‘Let him sing.' He sounded phenomenal. He is such a great voice and the future is going to hold a lot for him. I like to see a villager coming and being a part of my music. He sang the title song for Rang De Basanti.

You seem remarkably adept at tying up your music intricately and effectively to the setting and the mood. In Taal, you have somehow absorbed Kashmir into your music. In Bombay, the symphony after the massacre depicts the pathos of the loss of lives. In Lagaan, the music instantly takes you back to an historic era. How does mood and setting totally sink in your music?

It comes with the director's help and God's blessings! To tune into anything in this chaotic world can be difficult.

Based on what you just said of Subashji and from what I know, Indian directors are known to be hands on and they spend a lot of time on music, but how has your experience been in Hollywood: do they spend as much time or do they just give you broad parameters?

We did have to spend some months researching for The Lord of Rings: what to put in for battle? What is middle earth? What are the kinds of sounds to use? Of course things do change due to length, and we had to cut off some of the things since there is so much work put in—probably three or four times more than what you hear. We have so many unused numbers, but on the whole, it's three hours, and it is more light-hearted, not dark, which I am pleased about. People could not take more than three hours at a stretch.

In your Vande Matram album, despite being so young, you were able to gather all these maestros to come together and perform for your rendition of Rabindranath Tagore's creation. How?

I think it happened at a unique moment. The Kargil war happened, and that's when we thought, ‘Why don't we have all the musicians/masters of India come together to give support to the soldiers?' After the original idea was conceived by Bharat Bala and completed, we were inspired to make it a full-fledged concert. It was an idea, which was big enough in itself and could be released later, but it was first for Kargil.

You have come a long way. What is next for you?

Well it's my company, K-music. It is very exciting for me because, so far, when I was working I was always commissioned to do this or that?in which some [of my] ideas come in. But I also think independently and build concepts for music. I am over 40, and I thought, ‘Why don't I start a company in which we produce products that [are] my brainchild?' So Pray For Me Brother is the first product launched and was licensed to Universal.

You have dabbled so much in technology. Where do you see Hindi music, or Indian music for that matter, in the next few years? In the U.S. for instance, Podcasting and iTunes have become a staple, and the new generation cannot survive without downloading a couple hundred songs that they carry on gadgets/laptops with them.

I think it's getting to be like the West where there are so many genres like classical, rock, hip-hop, and others. In India, so far, we have only film music and classical music. Soon we'll have different genres of music, and we will have different radio stations playing different genres.

In an age where most popular artists crave for media hype, you have remained remarkably clear off the tabloids and the hoopla. Are you just publicity shy or is there another deliberate reason?

I think that words sometimes become your enemies. You say something naively and that kind of hurts somebody. I don't need to be in the tabloids. All I need is my music and my following where people listen to my music. They don't want to see my face. They just want to listen to my music.

As someone who has elevated the synthesizer to a whole new level, I need to ask, ‘Which is your favorite keyboard?'

I think a piano or my harmonium, the one which my guruji Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan saab gave me, three or four years back.

I get a feeling that you might be more blissful creating music in a studio, on your own, as opposed to being on stage playing live in concert. Is it true?

True. But it's like harvesting. You come and see people enjoying your music. So next time when you are [in the studio] doing a song, you know that people are going to enjoy it. People enjoy seeing their ‘star' perform live.

I know that you have been humble enough to say that you did not ‘launch' Sukhwinder, but the markets say that you made him.

That happens because of composition. If a composition is right for a singer, you place him/her in the song; it will automatically vault him to the next level. The match has to be right.

What raga inspires you the most? When you are in the composing mood and you've got fresh lyrics and you haven't got a preconceived thought, what raga energizes you the most?

Natural raga, Yaman, is my all time favorite. Another raga is Misra Bathiyar. It is challenging to do a song in that, but it is really gratifying and soothing.

Many consider you a modern day monument to Indian music. Any comments?

Monument? No, I don't think like that. I am working? it's a journey.

[Acknowledgments: We thank national promoter Yasmin Kassam and local promoter Mark Premji for facilitating this interview]

Sidebar:

Rahman Fact File

?He started out as a keyboardist in a band of friends who called themselves The Aristocrats.

?Even though versatile with many instruments, his favorite was the synthesizer because, "it is an ideal combination of music and technology."

?He began training in Carnatic music at age 11 with South India's prominent composer Shri Ilaiyaraja.

?Soon afterwards, he accompanied Zakir Hussain and others on a world tour.

?He landed a scholarship with Trinity College at Oxford University where he graduated with a degree in Western classical music.

?In a career spanning just about a decade, Rahman has sold more than one million records worldwide, and over 200 million cassettes, making him one of the world's top 25 all-time recording artists.

?Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, a world famous composer of musicals, hired Rahman to compose his stage production, Bombay Dreams, in 2002.

?Rahman, along with the Finnish folk-music band V�rttin�, composed the music for The Lord of the Rings theater production.

?For Mani Ratnam's Roja, Rahman received the Rajat Kamal Award at the National Film Awards for best music director, the first time ever by a first-time film composer. He then went on to win the same award three more times, the most ever by any composer.

?He is a recipient of the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian awards in India.

?His international film credits as composer include: Water, Provoked, Warriors of Heaven and Earth (Chinese)

By VIREN MAYANI


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